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Summer 2003


Poetry in a Steel Mill:
Tapestries by Mildred T. Johnstone.

Alice in a Wonderland of Steel, designed in collaboration with Pablo Burchard, 1949; wool, angora, and metallic thread on linen; embroidery (French knot, brick, stem, and straight stitches); 25.75 by 55.5 inches. Collection of the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo: William Stiles.

Mildred T. Johnstone was the first woman to tour the Bethlehem Steel works in Pennslyvania in 1948, and this visit became the inspiration for her nonconventional needlework tapestries, exhibited January 5 - March 16 at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania in "Poetry in a Steel Mill: Tapestries by Mildred T. Johnstone." A woman of financial security and high creative energy, Johnstone studied dance with Martha Graham, painting at the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, Zen Buddhism, and the Japanese tea ceremony and traveled the world, eventually meeting Picasso and other famous creative people. The fiber artist Lenore Tawney was a longtime friend. Johnstone was even mentioned in the writings of Ana´s Nin and worked with birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. While living the life of the privileged, Johnstone immersed herself in complex textural needlepoint compositions.

During the 1940s and '50s, Johnstone's second husband was the vice president in charge of financial and legal matters at Bethlehem Steel, and on his invitation she toured the steel mill, where she was fascinated by the ominous power of the machines. Mildred T. Johnstone found her creative voice in needlepoint, and to avoid the preprinted generic designs of that era she collaborated with artists who designed for her, the execution of each piece being dictated by her energetic use of color and innovative stitching. In Alice in a Wonderland of Steel, Johnstone saw herself as Alice, a tiny running figure surrounded by larger-than-life machines and the dizzying motion of brick, zigzag, diamond, and spiral repeat patterns. Intense color, surface stiching, and geometric forms depict steelmaking as a metaphor for life, reminiscent of the classic 1940 Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. Alice in a Wonderland of Steel was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum in 1950, where it was awarded first prize by the American Craftsmen's Educational Council. In several works, Johnstone supplemented traditional wool yarns with French knots of metallic and fluorescent threads, said to represent nuts, bolts, and riveting and the violence and burning crackle of the steel mill.

Peaceable Kingdom, designed in collaboration with Joseph Cantieni, 1960; wool, angora, metallic, and Lurex threads on linen; embroidery (French knot, basketweave, petit point, stem, Algerian eye, straight, long, and short stitches); 20 by 42 inches. Private collection. Photo: Robert Walch.

A 1960 piece, Peaceable Kingdom, utilizes intense sunny colors and cheery animals, intertwined with the machinery of the steel mill, and includes 13 Bethlehem Steel executives seated behind a long table, as in the Last Supper. To her amusement, Johnstone ripped out the stitched chairman of the board three times, trying to make him look less frightened. Outlining the bottom of the table is an abstract repeat pattern of the masks worn by the steelworkers, in stark contrast to the cartoony faces of the executives. A recurring image of a wolf also appears in this work, symbolic of Johnstone's son Tommy, who was killed in 1927 by a wolf that escaped from her first husband's private zoo. A verse from Isaiah is stitched into the composition: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. And the calf and the young lion together and a little child shall lead them." Despite her life of luxury, Johnstone always carried her demons with her and eloquently stitched them into her needlework.

"Poetry in a Steel Mill: Tapestries of Mildred T. Johnstone" is accompanied by a full color catalogue edited by Ruta T. Saliklis, Ph.D., the museum's Kate Fowler Merle-Smith Curator of Textiles [see page 78 of the Summer issue for ordering information].

-Barbara Schulman

Barbara Schulman is Professor of Art and head of the Fiber Art Program at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

This review first appeared in:

Summer 2003


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